If you’re drawn to Android phones, welcome to an embarrassment of riches. There are so many great phones that it’s hard to settle on one for long, because another amazing Android phone comes along every 12 minutes.
The new greatest Android handset of all is the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. Or maybe it’s that phone’s sibling, the less-curvy and smaller Galaxy S7. Either way, you’re getting a tremendous combination of photographic firepower, in-hand comfort, build quality, water resistance, processing, and pragmatism. They’re super-versatile, and that’s before you get to the part where they’re the cornerstones of an excellent VR platform.
Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge
Fast-focusing camera is wonderful in low light. Go ahead and use these phones in the shower. Delicious handfeel. Beautiful screens. MicroSD slots. Compatibile with Gear VR headset. The Edge’s curvy display doesn’t need a purpose to be cool.
TouchWiz UI doesn’t react as quickly or smoothly as stock Android. A lot of storage space is taken up by preinstalled stuff.
But above all, the new Galaxy flagships make one thing clear: Smartphone cameras have transcended their station as convenient “good enough” replacements for dedicated point-and-shoots. The S7 cameras are better than many point-and-shoot cameras. Like a lot of modern smartphones, their optically stabilized cameras shoot 4K and hyperlapse video, and they have manual exposure controls. But these cameras also rethink how and where we use phones to make pictures. They capture more detail and color in the dark, thanks to a trinity of attributes.
First, the wide-open f/1.7 aperture helps harness light, allowing the camera to use faster shutter speeds in the dark and capture a shallow depth of field. Second, Samsung decreased the pixel density of the sensor, spreading 12 megapixels across an imager that’s larger than the last generation’s 16-megapixel sensors. A bigger sensor with bigger pixels also helps capture detail in low light.
But the most notable feature is the new autofocus system. Each one of the 12 million or so pixels serves a dual purpose: to collect light and to drive the camera’s phase-detection AF. Compared to common contrast-detection autofocus systems, phase detection is faster and more effective in low light. A contrast-detection system searches in and out for focus—a serious challenge for low-light and fast-action shots. A good phase-detection system simply pops into focus.
Many standalone cameras, Samsung’s Galaxy phones, and Apple’s iPhone have had this tech for years. What’s new here is the percentage of the sensor Samsung has devoted to the task. Only Canon’s DSLRs have had something similar at the every-pixel level.
None of that means jack if the camera doesn’t perform. The S7 and S7 Edge do. In candlelight and at night, they focus instantaneously and capture images with vibrant colors and good detail. Focus isn’t the only thing that’s fast; the camera app launches with a quick double-tap of the home button. I took the same shots in dim lighting with the iPhone 6S—an excellent camera—and its AF system struggled to focus for seconds. Then it would capture a murkier, less-colorful image.
But that’s not always a bad thing: In partially lit photos, the S7 and S7 Edge tend to blow out bright spots as if their sensors just had their pupils dilated. And while colors certainly look livelier, the pictures have a paint-like quality when examined at full size. Still, your 3 a.m. Instagram photos will never look better. I found myself dialing down the brightness in some nighttime shots, which is a very good kind of absurd.
Not as absurd as taking a selfie or making a phone call in the shower, which you can also do. The S7 phones carry IP68 ratings, meaning they’re impervious to dust and can withstand a dip in 5 feet of water for 30 minutes. I submerged the S7 Edge in a sink for a few minutes, and it was fine. I also had a 10-minute phone conversation while taking a shower, and call quality was solid. So go ahead and dunk them in that jar filled with combs and mysterious blue fluid next time you’re at the barber shop. Never recharge them while they’re wet, but rest assured these phones really are waterproof.
Their screens are gorgeous, and the Edge is a head-turner. The “gold platinum” version I tested is chromed-out, a premium-looking wedge of aluminum and glass. You can get each phone with glossy black backs if you want less bling—or a phone that better hides fingerprints. (Don’t worry, you can clean them with a quick hose-down on the back patio.)
The Edge’s major difference is that its 5.5-inch screen (2560×1440, 534ppi) spills over its edges like an AMOLED infinity pool. Its screen is the same size as the iPhone 6S Plus’s, but the Edge looks and feels more compact. The back curves inward at the edges, making it feel like the world’s slimmest axe handle. It’s very pleasant. The Galaxy S7 doesn’t get the wraparound screen. Its 5.1-inch AMOLED display has the same resolution at the Edge, but it’s smaller, so it’s sharper (577ppi). And while the screen is flat, its back also tapers inward at the edges, producing a similar handfeel.
On Full Display
One of the benefits of AMOLED is that it’s efficient. Unlike LCD technology, OLED doesn’t need a full-screen backlight to display anything. It can just turn individual pixels on and off. The S7 phones have an “always-on” portion of the screen that displays the date, time, or a photo if you like. Samsung claims the feature has a negligible impact on battery life; if you’re skeptical, you can turn “always-on” always-off in the settings. In any event, it’s nice to see what time it is without having to wake up the phone.
To validate its wraparound display, the Edge has features the regular S7 doesn’t. Most notably, the “Edge screen” can be configured as a fast-access sidebar with 10 apps. No matter where you are in the phone’s rabbit hole of options, swipe a tab at the edge of the screen and two vertical rows of icons slide in (like me into your DMs). It’s like having a second home screen that follows you. Swipe left and right from there, and you see headlines and sports scores without having to launch an app, and five contacts you’ve tapped for speed-dial status. Those contacts are color-coded, which contributes to a cool feature: If your phone’s face-down and your inner circle texts or calls you, the edges pulse in a corresponding color. It’s all very disco.
Whether it’s necessary is arguable. The edge-screen features could be a time-saving part of your phone-using routine. But if not? Who cares! The curvy screen is slick and slimming enough to make its dubious utility negligible. It’s cool and comfy enough to get away with being gratuitous.
Besides, there’s plenty of pragmatism elsewhere. Both phones have microSD slots in their SIM trays, letting you add up to 200GB of removable storage if the 32GB on board fills up. To accompany its bigger screen, the Edge has a 3,600mAh battery compared to the Galaxy S7’s 3,000mAh unit; both got me through a full day with ease, and both have quick-charge features that turn 10 minutes of charging time into five hours of battery life. Both phones support Samsung Pay, a mobile payments system that works with normal magnetic card swipers. And the US versions sport Qualcomm’s fresh and fast Snapdragon 820 chip, backed by 4GB RAM. I wasn’t able to test the new phones with the Samsung Gear VR headset, but they’re compatible. They’re also the first phones that support the Vulkan graphics API, which should sweeten the VR experience.
Edge of Now
So these phones are state-of-the-art. But as is always the case with Android, there are reasons to buy or wait for another Android phone. For one thing, they’re expensive: Both phones are around $ 700—two Benjamins more than the excellent, unlocked Nexus 6P. However, that steeper price includes the Gear VR headset and six games if you preorder either phone before March 18.
If you want a stock Android experience, move along. Samsung’s TouchWiz UI is layered atop Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and reaction times seem a tad slower and sloppier than with stock Android devices. You can hide some of the bloatware, but my device came with 28 apps preinstalled by Verizon, Google, Amazon, and Samsung. At least they’re tucked in folders so they take up less room on the app screen.
Whether you want TouchWiz and preinstalled apps or not, they’re eating up storage space. A fresh-out-of-the-box Galaxy S7 phone has more than 9GB of space clogged by the OS, TouchWiz, and apps. Thank goodness for that microSD slot, because that 32GB phone is actually 22.65 gigs out of the box.
But it’s one hell of a 22.65-gig phone. You’ve never seen a smartphone camera with better low-light performance. You’ve never used one that focuses faster. You’ll never have to miss a call while you’re swimming. You’ll never be left wanting for speeds, feeds, screen quality, face-computer fun, or battery life. At least until 12 minutes from now, when another awesome Android phone is announced.